This story has no message or purpose. It is one of the winter’s tales – accounts of the many bizarre incidents that have marked my life – that I tell at this time of year. For once, I am not trying to make a point.
In 1987, I was working with the photographer Adrian Arbib in the occupied territory of West Papua. Annexed by Indonesia in 1963, it was being governed with characteristic brutality by the Suharto regime. The indigenous people were being forced off their land and replaced, in a programme sponsored by the World Bank, by migrants from Java and Bali. Many had been tortured and killed. Timber and minerals were being stripped from the territory; palm oil plantations were replacing the rich forests and their remarkable wildlife. Much of this continues today.
Mountain landscape near Membegan, West Papua, Indonesia: ‘Giant hornets swarmed over my body, buzzing frantically.’ Photograph: Jane Sweeney/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images
They looked terrified. I remembered that my shirt was off, my eyes were rolling and I was trembling. I had to reassure them.
We had made contact with the Papuan rebels who were trying to fight the Indonesian state with old rifles and bows and arrows. They had told us to wait in a hotel in Jayapura, the sweaty, sagging capital of the stolen province. They would send someone to collect us and take us by sea to their camp on the border with Papua New Guinea.
The town, swarming with soldiers and secret services, was dangerous to them. After a few days, a man in mirrored sunglasses came into the hotel, bundled us into his jeep and took us to a tin hut in the adjoining shanty town, where the local rebel commander sized us up and eventually agreed to send a boat for us. His messengers would stay in touch.
We waited. And waited. Days went by, during which the messengers came and went, always promising to pick us up the following dawn, then producing a reason later in the day why it couldn’t happen.
Bored rigid, I set off one morning for a walk. The forest close to the town was in tatters, broken up by shifting cultivation. It was a hot day, and I soon took off my shirt and slung it over my shoulder. I followed a trail that took me down to a small stream. I crossed it and began to climb through the burnt trees on the other side. Halfway up the slope, I brushed against a rotten stump. I took another step and found myself under attack.
Giant hornets swarmed over my body, buzzing frantically. I knew how dangerous they were: plenty of people had died from their stings. I also knew that if I stood stock still, they would eventually fly away. For a while, I managed not to twitch. The buzzing became louder as reinforcements poured out of the stump. One of them was climbing up the inside of my leg, into my shorts.
Suddenly I could bear it no longer. I lunged up the slope, shouting and beating them with my shirt. Every sting felt like being punched with a knuckle duster. I panicked more, lashing at the hornets, screaming. Then I suddenly stopped, aware that I was being stung to death.
Heart pounding, breathing raggedly, I waited until the last of them disentangled themselves from my hair and they returned to the stump. I could feel every sting: there were eight. I suspected I was as good as dead.
I stumbled across the clearings, shouting for help. In a clump of trees I saw a rickety house on stilts. A ladder led to the platform, 10 feet from the ground. I clung to the steps, shouting. No one emerged, so I climbed up and looked in. There were five people inside: two children, their parents and their grandmother. They looked terrified. I remembered that my shirt was off, my eyes were rolling and I was trembling. I had to reassure them.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m George.” I stepped forward to shake hands with the man, hit my head on the lintel and fell on top of his wife. She screamed. The children began to cry. I picked myself up, babbling apologies. I had to win their trust. I spoke slowly. “It’s very important you understand me. I have just been attacked by hundreds of insects.” The man’s mouth fell open; he didn’t seem to believe what I said. “A swarm of insects. They came out of a tree and started flying round my head. Then eight of them bit me.”
But instead of serangga – which means insects – in my panic I said semangka; or watermelons. The grandmother backed away from me, shaking her head and feeling for the back door. The children began to scream more loudly.
I sat down beside the man and tried to explain it carefully. “I need help. I was walking in your field when I was attacked by watermelons. Eight of them bit me, eight watermelons.”
He stared at me, unable to move, his eyes becoming bigger and rounder as I nodded assurances at him. “Look –” I began again. The young woman was whimpering with terror.
Then her husband suddenly smiled. “Ahh, serangga!” He stood up. “You stay there, I have some medicine for you.”
I was going to be saved! These people lived with the hornets, didn’t they? They must have an antidote, refined over millennia from forest herbs. The man told me to lie on my front. He began to rub something into my back. It felt warm and soothing, and the pain began to ebb. The smell of the medicine was strangely familiar.
I turned my head and saw in his hand a jar of Vicks VapoRub. “No, no! I’m going to die!” I cried. I ran from the room, forgetting that it was 10 feet from the ground. I crashed into the undergrowth, picked myself up and fled. A backward glance revealed the man in his doorway, holding a small jar in one hand, my shirt in the other, staring after me.
Just before I reached the town, the convulsions began. I felt as if I were being picked up by the shoulders and shaken. I began to drool. I stumbled along the streets, shuddering and sobbing, holding on to buildings to stay upright as my legs began to buckle. I fell through the door of the hotel and into our room, where Adrian was sitting on his bed, reading.
He started up. “God you look awful.” I tried to speak, but my mouth didn’t seem to work. I fell face down on to my bed, shivering violently. He must have noticed the welts on my back, because he forced a couple of antihistamines down me. The fit began to subside, and I blacked out almost immediately.
I was gone for 12 hours, and when I woke I felt cleaned out, bereft, as if I had just suffered some great loss. It took me a while to realise that all I had left behind was my shirt.